IMAGINE cycling from the heart of a major city out into the open country, without tangling with traffic. It's a rare treat, but one on offer to Bristolians - thanks to the Bristol-to-Bath railway path. The idea is simplicity itself; a strip of tarmac 15 miles long and 10ft wide, rolled out on a disused railway. It runs from Bristol Temple Meads station, east through the city's outskirts, then south through woods and meadows to join the Avon on the edge of Bath.
I started at the Bristol end, where signs guide you on to the path as soon as you emerge from the station. Much of the early stretch is in cuttings, so there are few open views. But I could trace my progress by the shifts in architecture. First the ramshackle remains of Victorian railhead factories; then the squat, sturdy artisans' cottages and identikit 1930s semis; finally, the post-modern toytown estates on the outskirts - all two-tone brickwork and fake details.
Even in the city, some cuttings are deep and wooded enough to give a sense of rural seclusion. The banks were thick with brambles and bracken, bursts of willowherb and rosehip splashing pink and orange down the slopes.
For those living nearby, the cycle path is a popular commuting route. Speeds average 12-15mph, compared to just 7-10mph for motorists caught in the Bristol rush hour.
Much of the work on the path has been undertaken by Sustrans, the charity that recently received a National Lottery grant to assist with its cycle route scheme. It commissioned the imaginative sculptures lining the track. Some are purely decorative, like the spiralling totem poles crowned with owls or queens' heads. Others cleverly combine art and function; a milestone marking eight miles to Bath, carved out of Bath stone, looks like a fragment of a fluted pillar typical of that city - and doubles as a seat.
The path snakes out of Bristol, under Snapes Hill through a long, dank but well-lit tunnel, past Mangotsfield and then south to Warmley and Bitton. It was here, rounding a bend in the cutting, that I came face-to-face with the path's previous incarnation: an ancient but well polished black steam engine was rolling towards me at a stately puff. Until its closure in 1971, this was the Somerset-Dorset railway. Now, a short section is being restored by enthusiasts who run short trips for steam buffs from Bitton station. I stopped here to make a few notes, and straightaway one of them was at my side, pointing at the engine and saying something incomprehensible involving a lot of numbers. I realised he had taken me for a trainspotter; horrified, I muttered and wobbled off.
After Britton it was open country. The path ran along an embankment above sheep-strewn fields, with wide views across the plain to the slopes of the Cotswolds. From Bitton Church tower a huge flag of St George floated on a light breeze, summing up the Englishness of it all. Beyond, hedges curled round the contour lines of Kelston Round Hill, up to its crown of a clump of trees.
Whole families were out for Saturday rides; the parents on "his'n'hers" mountain bikes (chunky black and day-glo pink) with tots on tiny tricyles in tow - their faces etched with grim determination as they pedalled in small circles, or transfixed with delight as they sploshed through puddles. Boy racers rushed by, all Lycra and attitude. But in between it was just the soft whirr of wheels, birdsong and distant country noises (sheep, cows, clanking tractors).
I stopped to rest on a bridge over the Avon. It felt incredibly peaceful. The river's curve fringed with willow; swans drifting slowly downstream; a church clock chiming the hour. A cluster of cyclists opened up their sandwiches. At the far end of the bridge there was even a cycle-tramp, his rustic mountain bike overhung with carrier bags and a tarpaulin. He leaned against the parapet, quaffing gut-rot cider and grinning amiably at us all.
The track led on across a couple more bridges, and along a wooded hillside before emerging suddenly into the fringes of Bath itself. Here the path came to a sudden and undignified halt on the edge of a housing estate - but there were plenty of conspicuous signs to guide me down to the river Avon and a short ride on the towpath to the heart of town. The clouds, which had been hovering all day, were sinking back towards the horizon, and I slid into Bath on a golden evening, the low sunlight rich on the honey-coloured stone.
Over supper with a friend in the city, I waxed eloquent with enthusiasm for it all. "You know what HG Wells said about cycling? `When I see a man on a bicycle, I...' "
"Reach for my gun?" she suggested.
" `Have hope for the human race', actually."
"Oh," she said.
CYCLING THE AVON ROUTE
The path is clearly signposted at both ends. At Bristol, it starts a short distance from Temple Meads station. The easiest access at the Bath end is from the Avon towpath in the east of the city. A detailed map is available from Avon County Council's Cycle Project Team (0117 987 4585). There are links at various points to the Avon Cycleway, a network of waymarked routes across the county.
Sustrans, the cycle route charity, is developing a range of cycle paths throughout the UK, including an Inverness-Dover route. It produces a range of newsletters and publications. To become a supporter, phone 0117 929 8893.
The Cyclists Touring Club (01483 417217) publishes Cycle Away, a brief guide to cycle routes in the UK.Reuse content